FAIR WARNING: I’m going to talk about stuff that has occurred on the show Friday Night Lights. I’m not going to mention anything that hasn’t already aired, but if you’re still catching up and wish to remain unspoiled, cease reading now.
For the 2006-2007 television season the finest show you could watch without stealing cable from your neighbor was Friday Night Lights. During its first season no other show could compare in quality of writing, performance, or direction. Anchored by the relationship between Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), a first-year high school football coach, and his wife Tami (Connie Britton), a guidance counselor at the same school, Friday Night Lights painted a vivid portrait of small-town family life. The student characters each fit certain archetypes but were written and acted so brilliantly that they transcended the mold of the typical high school drama. And, of course, there was football. But before anyone throws out the tired argument that “I don’t like sports, therefore I have no need for this show,” be aware that football is merely the MacGuffin that ties these characters together. The show is not about football, any more than Pulp Fiction was about Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase. That said, however, Friday Night Lights offered a special insight into the psychology of the game.
The show’s first season traced the team’s efforts to win the state championship. After twenty-plus episodes, the Dillon Panthers’ victory in the season finale was more cathartic than any feel-good sports movie ever made.
The first-season finale also offered tantalizing possibilities for the direction the show would take in its second season. Paralyzed star quarterback Jason Street had found an interesting new niche for himself, while still pursuing his dream of playing professional quad rugby. Quirky nerd Landry Clarke and reforming wild girl Tyra Collette formed a unique and entertaining friendship. Coach Taylor accepted a new job coaching at the college level — even though it meant being separated from his family for months at a time. And Tami Taylor learned she was having a baby.
Season Two started up a couple of weeks ago, and the first forty-five minutes or so of the premiere episode were like slipping into a comfy pair of sweatpants that just came out of the dryer. The Taylors had their baby, Grace. Their older daughter Julie was having doubts about her relationship with shy star quarterback Matt Saracen. Smash Williams was cocky as ever. Tim Riggins was drunk and scoring left and right — just not on the football field. Lyla Garrity went and found Jesus, which would be ridiculous for anybody but her. And her dad, Buddy, received a well-deserved insult from new football coach Bill McGregor that had to make any fan of the show smile a little.
And then, all of a sudden, I found myself watching an episode from one of the later seasons of Beverly Hills 90210.
See, during the first season, an unnamed creepy dude attacked Tyra Collette. Being the badass that she is, Tyra fought him off. Landry Clarke found her a little while later, and this event began an interesting bonding process between these two characters. The way these characters dealt with the event over the rest of the season remained both realistic and dramatically satisfying.
During the second-season premiere this creepy dude shows up again and attempts to up the ante, as it were, between himself and Tyra. After a brief altercation the man makes a few threatening remarks and then walks away, at which point Landry picks up a piece of metal and beats the guy to death with it. I KNOW.
Perhaps I am being melodramatic. Landry hit the guy twice. The first one put him on the ground; the second is what probably killed him. But still, right? I mean, it wasn’t even self-defense. The guy was walking away. And then, to add a big sloppy fart to this turd of a plotline, Landry and Tyra dispose of the body by throwing it in a river. What the hell happened to my show?
It’s simple enough to see where the show went wrong: The guy should not have died. Severely hurt, sure. Landry and Tyra would have to deal with the consequences, but the characters’ cores would remain unaltered. But now? Now, whatever happened before is irrelevant. For these two characters the show can be about nothing but They Killed A Guy. No more fun banter between Landry and his best friend Matt Saracen about girls. No more snarky quips about high school lameness between Tyra and Julie Taylor. Because even if these events occur again, there is no way to view them without the They Killed A Guy filter. And that just makes me sad. If I wanted stories about teenagers committing murder I’d watch The O.C.
The third episode of Season Two airs tonight. Jesse Plemons (Landry) and Adrianne Palicki (Tyra) are excellent actors with a chemistry that is a joy to watch. They deserve a better story than this. Here’s hoping the writers — who have displayed genius before — can find a way to dig themselves out of this hole.